Are you a closet snob when it comes to computer users? Sure, we all try to be professional, but sometimes the best intentions go awry because a support person doesn’t “get it” from a computer user’s perspective. We’ve all been users ourselves at one time, but many of us are IT professionals because we intuitively understand what computers are about. Thus we pass through the most painful part of a computer user’s experience in a very short time. To front-line users, those annoyances that all of us face in using computers are obstacles, not interesting problems to solve as part of the job.

An end user’s perspective
To understand what I mean, please join me on a short trip to “Spruceland.” Be careful crossing streets, because only a few people have had driver training. Most of them learned from each other or by trial and error.

The rules of the road are different than what you are used to, as are the controls in the cars—most of which require a secret combination to use. If you have trouble learning to drive, just use the screen in your vehicle to read the manual—which is often not printed out. Unfortunately, what you need to know is often not in the manual or is so difficult to find that you give up searching. And if you do find what you’re looking for, the information may make no sense to you.

When the car breaks down—and it will—just call a mechanic and wait, as there are no tow trucks or rentals. If you can’t explain the problem properly, you may have to turn the engine off and then back on again to “fix” it. The mechanics often don’t understand how you work, but you must remember everything they say or they get cranky. And a repair may change the way your car works—you’ll just have to figure out what’s changed so you can still drive. Yes, Spruceland is where many PC users live, and it’s not a nice place to visit.

What is the point of this analogy?
This example is meant to give you some idea of how disoriented users can become just trying to do their job. A user needing help may be in crisis and therefore not have access to normal coping skills, which is one of the reasons for the “clueless user” phenomenon. The person is probably frustrated and under a lot of pressure—and perhaps embarrassed to be asking for help. Remember, it is often the computer preventing the user from working, not the reverse.

The user didn’t design the computer or the software. Someone else decided what was needed, and the user is just trying to fit the job tasks into a very rigid, yet seemingly unpredictable structure. As Clare-Marie Karat suggests in the first item of her User’s Bill of Rights, “The user is always right. If there is a problem with the use of the system, the system is the problem, not the user.” Check here for another example of the user’s perspective.

The messages we convey
Enjoying funny stories of user errors may be harmless, but why do we focus so often on their foibles? There are certainly just as many humorous situations that come up in our own use of computers. Perhaps this “shop talk” helps express our own frustration without calling into question the technology to which we have pledged our careers.

I know that mechanics, contractors, and the like have their own “clueless” stories, but computer users are almost totally dependent on IT professionals to do their jobs and thus deserve an extra measure of understanding.

What happens when we see the user as the problem? We can use all the right words, but the dynamics of our interaction will suffer. We may miss a clue because we devalue the user’s observation, or we may fix the user’s “mistake” without seeing a potential long-term problem (or solution). We may internally feel more frustrated because it is impossible to fix every user’s problem, and our nonverbal behavior if not our words will betray that frustration.

Where do we go from here?
How do we better convey our desire to be partners and supporters to the users? Here are a few suggestions, and I welcome your ideas, so post a comment to the article.

Let them know you understand
If you have an intranet, user newsletter, bulletin board, or other means of communicating with users on a regular basis, share some humor with your users. It lets them know you understand. You can even poke a little fun at your own foibles. Check out Off the Mark cartoons from

Remember the “canary in the coal mine”
Coal miners once used canaries to warn of poison gases. If the canary died, it was time to get out or get better ventilation. Simply fixing user “mistakes” is like resuscitating and then replacing the canary—the next one will have the same problem, and you will soon be dead (burnt out). Take advantage of what users are already telling you to look for ways to improve their procedures or your system. Better yet, ask them what is most frustrating or gets in the way of their productivity, and then address it.

Help them work (and feel) smarter
When you help users with their problems, try to add something they can use to make life easier, such as:

  • What to do if the problem reoccurs, either a fix or what to make note of and tell you about when calling.
  • An easier way to do the task they were attempting.
  • The address to the user support page on your intranet.

You can also reach users before they have a problem by starting a “Tip of the Week” to share some of your own shortcuts. Then store them in the User Support area on your intranet or in some other easily accessed location.

Show them your appreciation
Often the best way to be appreciated is to give out some appreciation. Thank individual users for calling problems to your attention, or thank them as a group for adjusting to the latest upgrade, rollout, down time, and so forth.

We’re in this together
Using a computer has become somewhat less painful, but having Windows XP point out that [Caps Lock] is on hardly qualifies as a revolution. Computers are still difficult to use for many users and it is up to us as support staff to treat computer users as our allies, not as annoyances. After all, without them we would all still be stuck at the command line.

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